Your own attitude affects safety
The list of risks in mining work ranges from fires to chemical exposure. It challenges workers to pay attention to safety every day. Even though the employer is always responsible for the safety of the workplace, the workers’ own attitude is also extremely important, emphasizes Miia Kuusikoski, who is the contractor’s supervisor at the Kittilä gold mine.
Miia Kuusikoski remembers well a near-accident that happened many years ago when she was working in another mine.
– I was working as a driller in a tunnel, when suddenly rock started to come down from the ceiling. The fallen rock was about two metres long. If I had been a few metres closer, I would have been crushed. I still remember what the shuddering of the tunnel felt like in my back just before that huge piece of rock fell.
The incident made me think more about safety, but didn’t affect my work motivation. The conditions in mining work are unstable, so risks related to working conditions may be difficult to assess in advance. Deeper underground the pressure of the rock grows and causes the rock to crack and expand. Water presents another problem. It drips down and makes the tunnel floor muddy and slippery.
– The rock type in this tunnel has at times been really poor – uneven and soft. Pieces of rock have fallen from the ceiling so uncontrollably, that it has been impossible to construct supports in the tunnel. A lot of work had to be done before the drilling could be continued, explains Kuusikoski and grins.
– But gold is always found in rather poor-quality rock.
Awareness of risks make you careful
Kuusikoski’s wide experience in mining work, such as drilling and charging, have given her a realistic picture of the work.
– If you are afraid, you can’t do this kind of work. Everyone who works here knows the risks in mining and takes the safety precautions very seriously, she adds.
Kari Herukka, process supervisor, agrees with her, and emphasizes the importance of preventive measures. He works above ground and in the tunnels, and his work involves overseeing and, if needed, instructing workers in the use of personal protectors.
Both Herukka and Kuusikoski believe that the attitude of the workers plays a big part in safety. Taking care of personal protective equipment and using them properly, as well as a vigilant attitude are prerequisites of working safely.
Safety matters are always at the top of the list in the daily meetings, and if deviations are noted they are always reported. The regular check-up and maintenance of vehicles is also important. The trucks that bring the ore from the tunnels to the surface to be crushed last only a few years in the hard mining conditions.
– Also a well-functioning initiative system helps to ensure safety. Anyone can make a suggestion for an improvement, and we are always ready to change tools or the way of working. Initiatives that lead to improvements are rewarded, says Herukka.
Incentives are also used to improve occupational safety.
– A part of the production fees is tied to safety, in other words, the workers see it directly in their wallet, explains occupational chief Teemu Pitkänen.
The work card is a part of everyday risk analysis
The owner of the mine, Canadian Agnico Eagle, has established the practice of filling out a card every day jointly by the employee and supervisor. The card consists of a 4-page list of the day’s work tasks, a risk assessment and possible deficiencies or changes in the conditions, as well as other noteworthy matters.
These may include for instance dust at the work site, problems in ventilation, the poor quality of the rock, or cracks appearing in the tunnel wall. The supervisor then records any possible risk factors or other items needing fixing into the electronic system.
The work card was taken into use at the Kittilä mine in 2010. There are about 30 different versions of the card designed for different work tasks.
– New ways of doing things always cause resistance at first. Here the younger generation has accepted the card very well, says occupational chief Pitkänen.
– But now everyone is getting used to the practice, and filling out the card has been accepted as part of the daily routine.
The occupational safety activity at the mine is quite comprehensive, and representatives from all occupational groups are involved. In addition to carrying out risk assessments and preparing working instructions, safety surveys are carried out.
– Accident frequency is the central indicator of safety. Our accident frequency is lower than in industry in general, even though we’re not the best in this field, says Pitkänen.
– Now the figure appears on the first page on our intranet, but we intend to take the accident counter also to the work site for everyone to see. But controlling the contractors is more difficult and has its own challenges.
In addition to their training for the occupational safety card, every driller has had training in fire work and in emergency extinguishing.
Safe rooms in case of fire
Fire is the biggest risk in a mine. There may be up to a hundred people in the fire area, and extinguishing work in the tunnel network is very difficult. The smoke from the fire can’t get out, and in just a brief moment the breathing air becomes poisonous.
The workers’ personal safety gear includes a breathing apparatus which provides additional oxygen so that a person can escape safely from the area. If a fire breaks out in the mine, the employees must go to safe rooms that are equipped with separate ventilation systems.
A new tunnel is being excavated between the morning and evening shifts every day. After the blasting phase there is a two-hour ventilation break for removing the combustion gases from the blasting. When the tunnel has been ventilated, the next shift of workers can start work.
Two rescue organizations operate in the mine. The surface organization corresponds to an industrial fire brigade, the other unit is trained for underground rescue operations. The distance to the rescue station at Kittilä is about 50 km, and to the rescue station at Sirkka about 40 km. It is therefore essential to be prepared for emergency situations right at the mine, because getting help from outside the mine takes about an hour.
Every mine employee who works underground has training in fire work and in extinguishing small fires, in case the work equipment catch on fire. The initial stage of the fire should be extinguished immediately, because a big machine with its fuel, oil and other combustible materials can continue to burn for a whole day.
Four hours is the maximum time for anyone to work underground alone.
Preventing occupational diseases
Drilling is a good example of risky mine work. Underground drilling is done with a big machine. Holes are drilled in a certain order in the tunnel walls, the holes are later charged, and about 4.6 metres of tunnel are blasted at a time. The loose rocks are removed, and the tunnel ceiling is supported mechanically with several-metre-long bolts. In addition, sprayed concrete is used, and if needed, netting and wire bolting.
Although the work machines have good lights, the tunnels and mine corridors are dark. Because of the dark, closed spaces, the employees undergo testing for their suitability for underground work already in connection with their pre-employment medical examination. For instance, a driller works alone in the tunnel, so he can chat with workmates only during the breaks. Four hours is the maximum time of working alone underground. After that the worker is in contact with the supervisor or a colleague by a walkie-talkie (VHF radiophone) or face to face.
The rock contains arsenic and small amounts of asbestos which expose miners to various diseases. Prolonged exposure to arsenic can cause prostate cancer, among other things.
The drilling releases a lot of rock dust which makes the breathing air hazardous. After prolonged exposure the impurities collect in the worker’s respiratory system damaging the lungs, and may lead to pneumoconiosis, classified as an occupational disease.
– Respiratory protection is therefore necessary, says occupational safety chief Teemu Pitkänen. The exposure is exacerbated by smoking, he adds.
Occupational hygiene is important
The list of dangerous substances used in mining work includes also explosives as well as many chemicals needed in the demanding enriching process. One of the most dangerous substances is cyanide. It is indispensable in the enrichment process, because it is used to separate the gold from the ore.
About two hundred tons of rock pass through the enrichment plant in one hour, so a huge amount of chemicals is used. Strict safety precautions are a part of the daily routines of the persons working with the chemicals.
The employees have personal protective gear in order to prevent accidents avoid contracting occupational diseases. They also take special care of their personal hygiene, like thorough hand-washing.
– We have our own occupational hygienist at the mine, and that’s a great advantage. The hygienist measures the exposure levels of various hazardous substances, such as arsenic dust and asbestos, Pitkänen says.
Watch out for traffic
The excavation of the tunnel proceeds at a speed of about 15 km a year. This means that the traffic between the surface and the deepest parts of the mine is heavy. There is a continuous stream of trucks, so the drivers as well as anyone working in the area must be very careful. The speed limit is 30 km per hour.
The entrance to the mine and the road are so narrow that there is not enough room for two vehicles to pass each other. Passing is possible only in a few widened places and turns in the road that are wider than the rest of the road. In winter the warm air rising from the depths of the mine forms a thick curtain of fog at the entrance, and visibility is poor for the first hundred metres or so.
Every driver reports his entry by walkie-talkie just before his truck enters the foggy darkness. At the same time an electronic display screen at the mouth of the tunnel identifies the driver from his electronic ID card, and shows his name on the screen. This takes place also when a truck leaves the tunnel to make sure that the person who entered the mine has also left it.
Traffic safety applies also to commuting. The road leading to the mine is in fair condition, but the distances are long, in winter the road is slippery, and traffic is heavy when the shift changes. Pitkänen feels that traffic safety needs to be one of the priorities in the information practices of the mine.
Preventing slipping accidents
When the trucks loaded with ore reach the surface, they dump their load into huge piles, from where a caterpillar shovel moves it one scoop at a time to the mobile crusher. The noise from the crusher is deafening, so hearing protection is vital. This stage is the culmination of mine activity: mining is basically moving material from one place to another.
On the other side of the road a snow plough has built up a huge pile of snow which is being taken away. Here, surprisingly, next to the enriching plant, is the most dangerous spot of the entire mine – the road leading downwards. It was earlier the site of several slipping accidents.
This hazard has now been eliminated. A few years ago a sturdy covered stairway was built on the other side of the road for the workers of the enrichment plant. When the many different hazards of mining work are listed, it is surprising to see that on average half of the accidents at work are slipping accidents.